I’m thrilled to share an interview with the fantastic middle-grade author Anne O’Brien Carelli. Anne’s debut novel, SKYLARK AND WALLCREEPER, came out the same year as my debut novel, THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST, and I fell in love with the book’s characters. In the book, Anne brilliantly parallels the story of a girl helping the resistance during World War II and a girl trying to help her grandmother during Hurricane Sandy in New York. Anne has continued to write books about young girls in historical times, with two more released this year, ONE LIGHT and BENEATH THE HEART. I asked Anne about her new books and her writing choices.
Hey Anne! Welcome to From the Mixed Up Files.
You once told me that your brand has become “brave girls in danger (and spying!)” and that’s so true! What draws you to writing historical MG fiction and especially these types of stories with spying and brave girls?
Thank you, Samantha. I had not intended for that to be my brand, but it appears that I tend to write about courageous girls who are in the midst of challenging historical events like the French Resistance or the Revolutionary War. I have always loved history and have had a lifelong fascination with the WWII Resistance, plus my favorite museum is the International Spy Museum, so I guess it was inevitable that I write about those things!
ONE LIGHT and SKYLARK AND WALLCREEPER are set during WWII and your latest novel, BENEATH THE HEART, is set during the Revolutionary War. Why did you choose these wars to be the backdrop for these stories?
SKYLARK AND WALLCREEPER is about a girl who is helping to evacuate her grandmother during Hurricane Sandy in New York City and discovers that her granny was a spy in WWII. The story came from a conversation with a nurse who was responsible for relocating 400 elderly residents during the hurricane. I combined that event with the French Resistance in a story that goes back and forth between 2011 and 1945. ONE LIGHT is a companion Resistance novel with a young girl who helps Jewish refugee children who are hiding in the cellar of a monastery. All of these stories are based on the actual involvement of children in the Resistance. I don’t think kids get enough credit for how brave they can be!
BENEATH THE HEART came from the amazing discovery that my ancestors owned the house and barn that were used as the American headquarters on the Saratoga battlefield during the Revolutionary War. That fact is especially remarkable because I’m originally from Michigan and moved to the Saratoga area before I knew of my family history! When I walked that land, I wondered what it would be like to be a twelve-year-old girl living in that house, and a story was born.
These books must need a lot of research. What’s your biggest tip on researching?
Primary sources are the best, and fascinating to read. I always try to dig out journals, patents, newspapers, maps, and other publications of the time period. Plenty of them are online now, but museum curators, reference librarians, and college professors are always happy to help you do some digging. (But be careful not to exclaim, “Wow!” when you discover something surprising while conducting research in a quiet library.) My favorite “deep dive” was when a curator and I unearthed the black lace coat of the suffragist Susan B. Anthony in the Seneca Falls Historical Society attic. Very cool.
Historical fiction has its own challenges in that you’re still fictionalizing real historical events. How do you figure out what kind of fictional story you want to layer over the real history?
My stories are always based on historical facts, including references to clothing, transportation, language, food, and other details. I like to put children in the middle of historical events and provide them with problems to solve. Since I rarely outline my books in advance, my characters generally take over the story and off we go!
SKYLARK AND WALLCREEPER, your debut novel, was published in 2018 through Little Bee Book’s Yellow Jacket imprint. For your next two novels, you chose to self-publish. Could you tell us about that decision and the differences between the two?
This was a big decision and the pandemic clinched it. I had worked with traditional publishers when I was writing nonfiction for adults but entered the world of children’s literature at a late age. I was thrilled when Little Bee published SKYLARK, but the publishing world operates at a slow pace and I’m not a spring chicken, so after a long discussion with my wonderful, supportive agent I decided to publish books myself. It has been challenging to handle the details and marketing, but I love the freedom of publishing according to my schedule. I could never have pursued this route if I hadn’t met so many incredible writers, teachers, librarians, and readers when I first started this journey.
I know you’re always working on a number of projects. What can we look forward to seeing from you next?
I just finished THE SKELETON’S GOLD, which is a story told by a fourteen-year-old boy in the Civil War. It’s based on a little-known robbery in 1864 and it was so much fun to write! It will be released in the spring of 2021. (There are brave girls in that one, too.) A new middle grade book that is about two friends who bond over experiences with the tragedy of September 11th and a refugee’s journey, will be published after that. A lot of the story is based on personal experience and my years of working with refugee children. And there are many other works in progress!
These sound wonderful. Thank you, Anne!
Check out Anne O’Brien Carelli’s books on her website, and click the links in this interview purchase copies. Plus, make sure you enter the giveaway below for your chance to win a paperback copy of ONE LIGHT and BENEATH THE HEART. Ends Dec. 31. U.S. and Canada only.